Lawmakers weighing risks of crumb rubber for playfields

OLYMPIA — There is an effort under way in the Legislature to figure out if artificial turf made with crumb rubber poses any risk to the health of those running around on it, especially children.

Bills introduced in the House and the Senate aim to sort through existing analyses of the material, assess alternative products and consider posting signs advising the public when they are about to step foot on a field made with the granular pieces of ground-up tires.

Opponents and supporters of this synthetic turf made their cases to the House Environment Committee at a recent hearing on a bill that, among other rules, would require installers of the synthetic turf to prove its safety to the state Department of Ecology before they could proceed.

“I am 12 years old. I get that we need to do something with used tires,” Alexandra Markiel of Brier said. “We tried dumping them in the oceans and lakes but that destroyed coral reefs and poisoned fish. We tried grinding them up and using them as mulch but that killed plants. What in those experiences caused people to think they would make healthy playing surfaces for children?”

But representatives of the recycled rubber industry, the state departments of health and ecology and outdoor recreation groups said there’s no evidence it’s dangerous to children.

“We have to get past the emotion. We have to look at the science,” said Doug Levy, of the Washington Recreation and Park Association. “We think this bill is very premature.”

Concern has focused on the fine-grained particles, made from ground-up tires, used both in the padding under the green turf and as a kind of artificial dirt sprinkled on top of the fields. Opponents point to a list of hazardous chemicals in rubber tires, including heavy metals and substances linked to cancer.

In Snohomish County, opposition to crumb rubber athletic fields has been greatest in Edmonds. It was triggered by a $4.2 million Edmonds School District project to construct two synthetic turf athletic fields at the former Woodway High School for soccer, baseball and lacrosse. The fields opened in September, but the controversy has continued to simmer, led by local parents.

In December, the Edmonds City Council approved a ban on the installation of synthetic turf playfields made from crumb rubber on any publicly-owned athletic field until July 11, 2017. The action covers school district-owned properties.

Laura Johnson, an Edmonds parent, and Lora Petso, a former Edmonds councilwoman, were among those who testified at the hearing in support of House Bill 2547.

The project at the former Woodway High School had been planned for more than a decade, with funding from the city of Edmonds, the Edmonds School District, the state, and the Lynnwood-based Verdant Health Commission.

The school district hired a consultant to review any health concerns associated with the crumb-rubber fields, including studies by public agencies and research in scientific journals. “Studies that appear to exhibit rigorous scientific validity find no additional risk from the chemicals or physical properties of artificial turf and crumb rubber,” according to the report by EMB Consulting in Lynnwood. The school district has seven similar artificial-turf fields.

The Verdant Health Commission also hired a consultant to take a look at the issue, Michael K. Peterson, a toxicologist employed by Gradient, a Seattle consulting firm. The chemical levels found in artificial turf “do not present a risk to people playing on or using the fields,” Peterson said in a report to the group.

Yet there have been concerns about possible health effects from the fill “related to data gaps or limitations,” his report said.

Peterson, who now works for the Recycled Rubber Council, told lawmakers at the hearing there is “consistent, strong evidence” that there is no risk from every day exposures of running around on the artificial turf.

Amy Griffin, a University of Washington soccer coach told them a different story.

In 2014, she raised the issue of a possible link between the artificial turf fields and some people who had played on them being diagnosed with various types of cancer. She said she’s compiled a list of 209 such athletes, of which 160 are soccer players and of those, 97 are goalies.

“I know it’s anecdotal. It’s more than coincident,” she said.

Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, a committee member, said after the hearing lawmakers are unlikely to impose any restrictions this year but may agree to study alternative products to crumb rubber,

He said he needs more scientific analysis before deciding if tighter regulations are necessary. California is in the midst of a multi-year study on the safety of crumb rubber and thinks Washington should wait to see the results before acting, he said.

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, introduced a bill to study health impacts of exposure to toxic chemicals in synthetic turf. She applauded the House panel for holding a hearing.

“Anytime we can get people talking about the safety of crumb rubber and the health impacts on our children, I think that’s a good thing,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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